V.I. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez killed two birds with one stone this week as he took on issues relating to the eligibility of senator-elect Kevin Rodriquez along with concerns voiced by Elections System members over a recently enacted law that appears to have accidentally eliminated both district boards.
With the involvement of the District Court, the Rodriquez case has made the rounds, hitting the V.I. Superior Court and V.I. Supreme Court before coming to Gomez’s desk.
The last decision before Wednesday’s hearing in District Court was a ruling by the Supreme Court, which came down the night before the swearing in of the 32nd Legislature and prevented Rodriquez from taking the oath of office with the other senators, despite a ruling issued on Jan. 5 by V.I. Superior Court Judge Kathleen Mackay, who said that testimony from several witnesses, including Rodriquez’s wife, showed that the senator-elect has lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands since 2013, meeting the residency requirement to run for Senate.
But the Supreme Court ruling said Mackay couldn’t do that, using the rule of judicial estoppel, which precludes a party from taking a position in a case that is contrary to a position it has taken in earlier legal proceedings. The Superior Court had previously issued an injunction barring Rodriquez from taking office, which the Supreme Court has also upheld.
Throughout the court process, the Board of Elections – which was named as a party in the suit brought by former senatorial candidate Janelle Sarauw – has said that it could not take any action on the matter because the suit, and challenge to Rodriquez’s eligibility, came after the Nov. 8 general election results were already certified.
Meanwhile, Rodriquez has sought to move the case to V.I. District Court and have Gomez determine whether the Legislature has the power to seat him, now that it has convened.
Sarauw has opposed having the case removed, but Gomez ruled Wednesday in favor of it and also ordered that the suits – Sarauw’s and the other case that Rodriquez has filed – be consolidated.
Since the ruling came down, Sen. Tregenza Roach issued a statement compelling the Legislature – which is a party in Rodriquez’s suit – to deal with the matter, which he said is within the Legislature’s purview and in accordance with advice provided by its legal counsel.
“I am convinced by my own review of the matter and by the legal counsel’s detailed review that the matter is appropriately within the province of the 32nd Legislature now that the body has been convened,” Roach wrote in a letter to Jackson.
“I am further convinced that this matter will become even more entangled by the several legal actions being maintained before the local courts, which may lead to conflicting and contradictory outcomes and which may continue indefinitely the untenable reality of unequal representation between the voting districts which constitute the body,” Roach continued.
In a statement Thursday, Roach added that the Legislature’s legal counsel has previously dealt with similar issues and has found “that nothing in the law or in the rules of the Legislature precludes the body from addressing the issues surrounding a challenge to the qualifications of a senator-elect or whether any defects preclude a senator-elect from being seated by the body.”
Gomez also ruled that lawyers on both sides brief him by Feb. 3 on issues relating to the elections boards, specifically relating to the enactment of a new law that seeks to dissolve both district boards and replace with one larger 14-member territorial board.
Elections board members have spent weeks in meetings seeking clarification on when the law is supposed to go in effect, but Gomez said Thursday that it technically already has.
Gomez said the law appears to have dissolved both district boards, effective Jan. 17, and replaced it with a unified board, which will first convene in 2018, an election year.
While lawyers for the Elections system disagreed, saying that the sections of the law give a different impression when read together, Gomez said that he has to believe that senators understood what they were doing when they passed the language.